Excerpt for Wilderness by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



WILDERNESS








by


Lancelot Schaubert


copyright © 2017

Lancelot Schaubert


"Hard wired" photo borrowed from Mitchell Haindfield on Flickr, courtesy his creative commons attribution 2.0 generic license. His photo was modified for use in the cover image.


ISBN: 9781370231935


For Kyle.


And for Kiddo, the Crescent Hotel,
and our friends at Hillspeak.














Part One:


Chapter One

I.


That doorknob cut him again when he turned it, sliced right across his palm. Who would have made a razor knob? How had it gotten that way? Who had wielded the hammer that had bent it so? He walked into Legends and saw his family sitting around the poker table and all was right with the world. They were not his family as such, but the only family he really felt like he had, his friends: Mark, Alison, Kallie, Jerome, Thomas, Ingrid, Clemente, Brady.


Mark had his weaponry. Ali her apathy for the badge -- you could see it in the eyebrows, the way they didn't scour the bar for mysteries to be solved like Ebur's did. Kallie's ranger green. Jerome's one-handed tamping of that puck of chew, the thwack of it catching the attention of the barflies. Thomas' handsome should-have-been-a-model face. Ingrid's necklaces and hair talismans. Clemente's weathered hands. Brady's childhood still lingering in his cheeks -- he had to be seventeen. All of them family. All of them safe.


"What happened to you?" Ali asked.


They turned and said hellos but mostly noticed the hand's blood.


"Knob get ya?" Mark asked.


Ebur nodded, procured a bar towel, wrapped it and waited until Ali came back with the first aid kid from her squad car. The blood stopped eventually and he asked, "Who would do that to a knob?"


"It's a mystery," she said, implying too that it was unsolvable.


He snorted. The worst ones were always the mysteries no one cared to solve, the undomesticated mysteries beneath all crimes and gnostic ceremonies, the great answers to the great questions. Who can tame the Leviathan? Who has tackled Behemoth?


He gave his money, they dealt, and played some hands. After a few, he got into a hard spot with a hand. "Raise," Ebur said. He knew how to raise well and so he bet the pot.


"Raise?" Mark asked.


"Isn't that how you do it at your auction house?" he asked.

"Woodham, I closed that months ago." He was holding his cards as if through mittens. Arthritis.


Alison said, "This isn't high school football."


"Ebur," Mark added.


Ebur Woodham said, "You still scout the roads for antiques thrown out or'd you stop that too? And yes, I'm still raising like a champion."


"I'm calling him," Alison said. And winked at him.


Ebur did not wink back.


"Yes, Officer," Mark said. "You do that."


"Insult me all you want," Alison said, "but don't insult the badge."


Mark gestured at her with his whole bent hand without looking and said into his cards, "Forgot I'm not the only one supposedly cleaning the streets."


Kallie called without saying anything, watching them. Brady agreed and threw out chips. Jerome called and chewed his chew. Ebur hated that smell. Thomas, Ingrid, and Clemente folded. Ingrid took off her glasses and cleaned them with the paisley red handkerchief tied around her long white braid of coarse hair and then tossed it back out of his line of sight. Clemente popped his scarred thumb knuckle with his other thumb.


Ebur asked, "Even though the auction house is closed?"


Mark said, "Seems like afternoon's the only time I get off. Busy every other time except Friday night."


"Surprised you can still lift it, meaning no offense," Ebur said.


"Weight's not a problem for me, I've got the rheumatoid housebroken for that," Mark said and barely flexed. "It's the little bends that get me."


"You on duty, Ali?" Ebur asked.


"I think Kallie's the only one on duty. How's Turpentine?"


"Lunch break," Kallie said. "New interns have never touched raw chicken. You?"


Mark sighed, then folded. Sighed again.


"See," Ebur said, "worked. Just like bidding at auction."


"No what worked is none of these fools know how to fold."

"I know how," Brady said.


"Scuse me," Mark said. "None of these fools know when to fold. Screwed up my pot odds." He took a sip from his gin and limejuice and then tamped his pipe as if through mittens. Ebur watched him look around Legends at the kids shooting cutthroat on the green felt like golf grass and the cute little college sophomore mopping up beer with a holey old green bathtowel on the other side of the barstool trunks and then, at last, to the TV screen and the endless babble of bullshit. The distraction was a looping video of some gorilla dragging a kid through its creekwater who now had been shot by animal control. They were interviewing the family. They were interviewing the biologist. They were interviewing everyone but the gorillas. Mark said, "Wish I could have shot it myself. Ain't no kid that should worry about getting flung around like a ragdoll in no city zoo."


Kallie gaped at him. "How can you say that it was good for anything -- ever -- to die?"


"Stuff has to die for you to eat it, Kallie, biology or no."


"I'm vegetarian," she said.


"Vegetables still have a life and still have to die." He sipped his gin and winced his good eye at her as if sighting in a rifle.


Ebur got a chill at the gesture.


"I don't celebrate its death," she said. "I express gratitude that it offered itself that I might live."


He scoffed. "You and your Osage Indian Myths."


"Native American."


The shuffling of clay chips and the slow sheeooohw of a card burned, a card dealt face up at the hand of Officer Alison. Ebur saw her wink over at Brady, trying to lighten the mood for the kid and he giggled a teenage giggle. It was not the same wink she'd offered him.


Mark broke the silence. "We got a regular old Lone Ranger here to weigh in. What do you think about all this monkey business, Ebur?"


Nine eyes turned to him. Plus a couple from the bar. Even the sophomore who had finished hand mopping.


"What of it?" he asked.


Kallie bet. Brady, still in agreement with Alison's humor, folded and reclined in his wooden chair. Jerome called Kallie and spat into his green soda bottle. Ebur called. Ali.


"Don't you miss playing detective?" Mark lit up his pipe while sighting in Ebur now. He had an arrangement with the regulars and the barkeep -- off-peak season, he could smoke. The locals needed peak season to make their money, but they wanted off-peak to live their lives away from tourists especially the half-million that came to Bikes, Booze, and BBQ. Smoking indoors on off-peak was one of those subtle rebellions by which Eureka stuck it to the rest of the state. Though Ali hated the smoke and would have fined Mark easily in peak season, even she enjoyed their little corner of resistance. Mark smoked, waiting for Ebur to answer.


Ebur said, "I'd be lying to say I didn't. Don't get me wrong, Texas Hold'em nights make everything better -- I look forward to Sunday every week."


"Me too," Brady said.


"But yeah, I do miss rolling into the townships around here and figuring stuff out the feds never bother to come down and investigate. Everyone's always so safe all the time, so trusting in cameras to do the trick but cameras don't catch everything out here and even when they do catch everything -- even in... hell I don't know, New York City right at the base of the new World Trade Center with all of those little black bubbles and the cameras inside of them, well they still don't make crimes stop happening or even give us all the facts, do they? Motive. Opportunity. You need a guy on the ground for that."


The sheriff grinned at him.


Ebur ignored her. Poorly.


Mark pointed to the zookeeper and directed a question at her. "You really think the kid fell?"


Kallie said. " That's my whole point: none of us can know from here and now."


Mark said, "I'm glad the gorilla got shot. Need to make sure the world knows who its tamers are." His eyes glazed over. He was somewhere else away from Ebur and the rest, remembering.


Ebur shook his head. "See, that's where you're wrong, Mark. I think we can build levees but the seas still rise. I think we can build tornado shelters but every now and again a mammoth twister's gonna come along and suck you out like a sky-high anteater anyways. You can't scare off the wild with a pistol shot. Nature keeps on coming like a Black Irish boxer."


"Kallie would disagree," Mark said. "All those cages."


"Actually Ebur's right: we try to never forget what exactly we're dealing with at Turpentine." She eyed him. "Which is also why I'm glad we have cages for violent men called jails. They are, as Aristotle said, rational animals." She fiddled with her claw necklace.


"They includes you," Mark said. "You women forget that mankind's an inclusive term whereas womankind ain't."


Ebur had never thought about that before.


"The Most Dangerous Game," Ali said and sipped her lager with a headnod to Jerome. She pulled out her bowie knife from where she kept it on her leg and began to clean her nails.


No one made the connection she had made and so sat awkwardly.


Ebur hated it when she tried to sound smart. She was smart enough without needing to sound like anything at all.


"Game?" Jerome asked through a mouthful.


"Big game. You know the story?" Ali asked.


Jerome shook his head and further spat.


She sat down the knife and she picked back up the deck of cards. "Well it's a great story, it begins..." Ali started and dealt a card. It was a wild card, a joker. "How'd that get in there?" she asked.


"Dammit," Ebur said. "Deal another card."


Kallie said, "Hand's reneged."


"Fine by me," Mark said and slammed down his hand and reached for his chips.


"Wait, wait, wait!" Brady said. "What if we just called the game a wash, took our pool and bought several rounds for all of us?"


There were several calls of no! from Ingrid, Thomas, Clemente.


Brady said. "We don't have to just compete every week."


Ali said, "Sounds like a good idea to me."


"Hell, Ali, I'd be driving home drunk at that point," Mark said.


She sighed. "I'll drive you home, Mark, have a little fun with us."


Mark made very blatant, very flamboyant raises of his eyebrows. Ebur watched him check out her overfit form, her short blond hair, her mannish biceps.


Ali said. "You're not my type. We've been through this."


"Men don't come in types," Mark said. "They come broken or in working order." He looked at Brady, elbowed the kid and said, "And this old man works, let me tell you."


"Umm..." Brady said, regaining his balance on the chair.


Ebur sipped the last of his Jack and Coke. He hated Coke. "Marie?"


"Mmm-yeah honey?"


"Can I get another Jack and Coke, hold the Coke?"


"In my hand?" Marie asked.


Ebur smiled a tamed smile.


Marie giggled at herself and went to work.


"What do you say?" Brady asked.


"Brady," Ali said, "Aren't you still in high school?"


"Seventeen going on twenty-one."


They laughed at that, all but Ebur who had already figured that one out within the first few minutes of meeting the boy.


"Off-peak," Mark said and smoked his pipe.


"Off-peak," Kallie agreed.


The chorus was taken up and everyone -- even Officer Alison -- agreed they could buy rounds for the group and Brady too. Everyone except for Ebur who fiddled with the tassels on his plaid scarf. He looked at all the money in the pot, money he counted on winning almost every week despite Mark's constant talk about pot odds and bankroll management. Money he risked to win that was now being turned to a lesser -- but guaranteed -- night of fun. Ebur looked around at the people at the table and Brady who obviously hadn't had much, if any, alcohol in his life. Didn't matter that Ebur knew how to beat all of them badly. Didn't matter that he had the chips to push them around. Didn't matter that he was sitting on four of a kind. All the skill in the world couldn't trump the feral will of the crowd. "Sure," he said and considered flipping his cards face-up, but what good would it do other than give him a sense of pride by way of a martyr complex? He tossed the four of a kind one at a time under the deck.


And then they bought about $200 in drinks, give or take.


Outside after, with Brady walking funny, Ebur sat down in the wooden rocking chair on the wooden porch like a stockman from the 1800's. And he gave into the rocking, let it wash over him like his mother's had.


Ali leaned against the wall beside.


He waited as he rocked.


"Nature keeps coming?" She had her woolen cop hat on like a cute little black chipmunk. A very strong chipmunk. A porcupine.


"I sure hope it does," he said.


"I don't," Ali said. "Couldn't bear to see Eureka burn."


He said nothing, rocking still.


"You don't believe in global warming?"


"Drastic climate change doesn't mean we'll get fire and brimstone here," Ebur said. "Maybe we get a slow winding down. Didn't John Milton freeze over Hell at the end of Inferno?"


She shrugged.


He realized that it was Dante. And he almost corrected himself, but she didn't know Dante either, so ignoring the mistake would help him save face.


She said, "This is hell to you?"


He said, " I do better with an untamed life, I think."


"You don't plan on settling down?"


He looked at her.


She looked back.


He searched for something there he couldn't find. Not yet, anyways. "Eat something before you're back on patrol."


She squared off her stance as he rose.


He grunted.


"You need a ride home?"


"I'll walk," he said. "Thank you."


"I'll take that ride," Mark said.


"Come on, Mark." They climbed in together, a beautiful Amazon and the village codger. She drove around the corner to the diner and they got out and got something to eat, as far as Ebur could tell.


II.


Walking was a couple-hour-long enterprise and the city looked like a smattering of stars under the trees, warming the world from within, staving off the endless hunger of night. He passed the JOY motel -- someone was renovating it, the old pastel coloring from the sixties now back in style. Strange to be so irrelevant you're suddenly relevant again. Made him care less about relevance. He passed billboards: Bikes, Booze, and BBQ (the noise alone...), the Passion Play and its GIANT (shittily-made) Jesus statue (that had oddly revived Eureka mid-century), the treehouse cabins, canoeing and kayaking, the farmer's market with the chocolate challah bread and 1880's breakfast, Turpentine's big cats and monkeys, another one about Basin Spring and its alleged healing powers -- he'd heard that Joplin had found a revival in the local healing power of those waters but they were probably just coattailing off of Eureka for marketing purposes, another billboard about a gun show (he thought of their loopholes and shivered, even as a gun owner), and they went on and on.


He could have easily taken the short way home after that stretch of billboards and arrived on his doorstep before sunrise, but sometimes he liked to see the city at sunrise so he walked on and ascended hills and delved into valleys until he found himself on top of the Crescent Hotel overlooking Eureka and its green heights and dark depths. The sun came up timid behind the hills and cloudbanks, giving off girlish hues, blushing at seeing the backside of Jesus. He sat out there -- they often let him sit there long after the pub had closed. And he got himself a drink and left money on the table. One of the morning shift girls was cleaning up and nodded at him. He raised his glass and then walked out to the balcony again and watched the day come on. Someone asked him if he wanted food and that seemed like a good idea so he ordered something but he couldn't remember what. He sat up there, watcher on the wall, worried no one would ever come to Eureka and relieve him of his shift. When he was finished, it was afternoon. He rose to leave and heard a cry down in the valley. A young man. Brady?


He wished he'd heard a second sound. Nothing came. As he searched around and about with those old hawkeyes of his, he thought he saw something in the winding roadway far below, that led up to The Crescent: a flash of orange. And maybe a leg.


Leaving his glass and his meal unpaid, he ran to the elevator. He pressed the button and heard the old groaning of hundred-year-old equipment and went to the stairs, hustling down in his bowlegged way, old and steady, winded and winding. Down and out and down the hill rather than taking the path -- a dangerous way to go for sure, but he gave no damn about that now if it was Brady or some other high school boy in trouble. He wished he'd had his pistol handy. He'd stopped holstering after that mall shooting.


Down and around the trees and the tall grass and the cold hard ground and leaves they'd let decompose on their own (how the hell you gonna rake a forest? Mark had said once), and he couldn't think about that now because he was coming around the bend and saw the leg. He walked up slowly, eyeing the brush partly out of habit and partly because he dreaded what he might find. And after walking even that slow, after padding along the roadway towards the ditch where someone might have thrown off an old piece of furniture, Ebur found what he dreaded.


Brady's body was face-up, eviscerated there on the edge, mangled with the vines of the forest and the inner vines of his gut mixed, his orange vest to protect him from renegade cars hanging impotent and aimless on his shoulders, a cup carrier full of coffee spilt and steaming off to the side, his boots still laced up tight. He looked as if he had gone to-to--toe with a hydra and lost. Ebur went to him and checked his pulse. He was dead, so even though he wanted to hold the boy and weep, habit stayed his hand. Instead he called her.


She said, "I have the worst headache."


"Come quickly."


"About time. Your place?"


"Not that," he said. "It's Brady."


She paused. He knew she heard it in his quivering sounds. But she paused for a long time. "What's Brady?"


"Up the way to the Crescent. Hurry."


III.


There weren't many policemen in Eureka when compared to Fayetteville, but when something like this happened they made good on showing up in the "force" end of "police force." Cones and a roadblock and a couple of cars and so on.


But Ebur wasn't in all of that. He was over on the side with Alison.


"You need any coffee?" she asked.


He spat.


"Sorry," she said. "Sorry."


He stared over at the boy. The kid had done nothing wrong other than not wanting to be an Olympic long jumper in a town that had desperately wanted him to compete and put them on the map for something other than holy water. Brady'd fought his neighbors, his teachers, his parents. He'd wanted to be an easy going businessman, had worked his ass off earning money and saving and sat every Friday night with some of the pillars of the place, playing poker. Or not so much playing poker as just playing and helping them have a good time.


"You know I've got to ask you," Ali said.


"I know."


"Where were you? How'd you find him?"


He pointed to the balcony up on the ridge. "Heard a cry."

"You saw him from all the way up there, Ebur?"


"Yes," he said. He looked back up at the balcony. The angle was off.


"Where'd you go after our poker game? Here?" she asked.


"Sure," he said.


"Did you stay the night in... one of the rooms?" she asked.


"No, Ali. And also no, Ali, I didn't. And also no, Ali, I won't right now -- especially now."


"Okay!"


"Just stick to the procedure," he said.


"Okay."


He turned his head and looked off at the treetops.


"Did you have anything against him?"


"Oh come on."


"I'm sticking to the procedure," she said.


"I was pissed about his poker idea because I need that child support money. You know I count on it."


"But is it so wrong to have a good time?"


"No," he said. "And that's why I agreed. And it's also why I would never -- ever -- in my life do something like this over something like that. I wasn't even mad when I left and it's as mad as I ever got and will... ever get at that poor boy. I'll tell his parents."


"We do--"


"I'll tell them."


"Did you see anything else?"


He hesitated. He looked again at the angle of the balcony.


"You don't think Mark..."


He eyed her.


"He's off in the afternoons."


Ebur watched the people on the balcony. He thought of Mark's hands. Mark could drop something on a man, could crush a spine, but he didn't have the dexterity for that kind of cut on a boy's stomach. So he would either need help or wouldn't be involved at all. Unless he had some sort of scythe or something in that antique store that would help him, but even then, the way it was all scattered and mangled...


She said, "He's next on my list after all that tough talk last night."


Ebur nodded.


She looked over at the body and something like fear, something like that dread he'd felt washed over the creases in her eyelids, something like disgust the way the edges of her nostrils curled as if to block out the smell of poison in the well.


"Alison?" he asked.


For the first time ever, she did not acknowledge him when he spoke to her. Instead she walked away and said, "I'll call you soon." She looked over her shoulder and stopped. "I will call you, you know."


He thought about that and her emotions as he walked her go, then he walked over to the body again and he didn't feel remorse or the dread or the anguish he'd felt hours before. He felt something had been turned loose inside of him again, something unfamiliar, something he'd locked up years ago when he'd married G.G., back when she'd started in with all she started in with. It was the hunt. The thrill of the hunt, of the search for an answer, of solving a puzzle. And he felt a bit guilty too, to go so quickly from grief to curiosity, but there it was: the irreverence of a mind turned loose upon clues.


He climbed back up the hillside the slow way, eyeing the way up for any sign of anything that might have come to claim the boy. Nothing presented itself except the uncultivated overgrowth quiet between the imposition of city streets that simply laid where they laid and no further. And sometimes not even that, what with the cracks in the road and the first hints of the tall grasses piercing those concretes and asphalts.


Upstairs again with the gawkers rubbernecking over the railing of the Crescent's balcony, he also looked down at the flashing red and blue, but ignored all of the commotion everyone else around him gossiped about as they ate their pizzas. Sitting there on the chair, he dialed in instead on the angle and began to ignore things -- the cops, the lights, the movement.


He could still see Brady's boot.


He could not see the orange vest.


He moved to the left end of the balcony, to the right, nothing helped or changed the circumstances. Either the body had moved -- which, knowing procedure, it wouldn't unless someone had cause to tamper with it -- or something was missing. He left The Crescent and looked back on it. The Crescent. Like a moon. But was it waxing or was it waning?


#

IV.


Ebur wrote a $200 check to himself from Cornerstone Bank and deposited it in Community First at the teller's box. Terri flirted with him there and he felt tired. Tired of being "easy on the eyes." He then made it down to Arvest and deposited $200 from his Community First checkbook, again at the teller -- this one Reesa, an older lady who talked about her ailing husband. She thanked him. He took a colorless sucker -- good for the flavor, good to keep him from looking like a fool with a colored mouth. That's all he needed: something to suck on that wouldn't make him look foolish to half the town.

He then wrote out a $200 check to Gamgi-Gyotong Woodham, hopped in his truck -- he needed to get that lassoing rope out of the bed before the rain ruined it -- and he drove south until he came to that mud-rock road he'd known so well and arrived, eventually, at a house on the hill that overlooked one of the few valleys unmarred by civilization. He got out, kicked a red rock, and saw his boy in the yard.


"Hey dad!"


"Hey son. You want to come to work with me?"


"Yeah!"


Ebur walked up to the front door. He ignored the doorbell, opened the storm door, and put fist to wood a few times.


She was on the other side of it, waiting.


He could hear her at the peephole. He looked right at it and grimaced.


The latch slid back. The knob turned. The door cracked and then opened to reveal her standing there in a long dark green dress that flattered her as well as anything she'd ever wore. The bun she wore hid her dark, sleek Korean hair.


"Hey Geeg," he said. "Can I come in?"


"Depends," she said.


He handed over the child support that wasn't really child support since they weren't really divorced.


She grabbed it up and didn't even look at it before she tossed it carelessly behind her onto the floor. She flattened out her dress as if to cover parts of her she didn't want exposed and pulled up the slip to cover still more of her cleavage -- more than that, even, to cover her collar. "Did you and Alison hook up?"


"No," he said.


"Why not?" she asked, crossing her arms high enough to cover the rest and the arms as well.


"G.G. I don't want nobody else. I just want to live with you and Peter and work the land."


"Then why won't you do this for me?"


"Because I want you."


"Yes, but I'm not... not anymore. That's why Ali and I made the deal we made. She still talks to me, you know. We're good friends."


He looked off to the side yard. The hedge needed trimming. "Why are you still asking this of me?"


"What's wrong with Ali? You said she was pretty. You said you'd go sleep with her to prove a point."


"I said that in anger, G.G., we've been over this. I actually like your father, too, I was just mad and out of my mind."


"Well I agree with you anyways. I think you should hook up with her and that's why you can't come in until you do."


"This doesn't make any sense."


"Yes it does," she said. "Ali needs a man and thinks you're handsome. Peter needs a father. I need help around the house -- a helpmate and a friend -- and I don't want anyone inside of me anymore. And you're a man who needs the things a man needs. Works out for everybody."


"Except me," he said. "The father of your son and, I thought, the man you wanted to marry."


Peter was standing, watching, waiting, listening between them both.

"I did want to marry you."


"And do you now, Geeg?"


"I do."


"What about that whole one flesh thing?"


"My mother was the religious one."


"Religion doesn't have anything to do with this."


"Marriage is a religious thing."


"Then why worry about divorce at all? Your superstition of divorce shows it. You're trying everything you can to get us practically divorced without signing papers but you never took the time to ask if you were really married. You want eternal faithfulness without having to chain yourself to eternity. You want to be free but never stop to ask if you were free to bind yourself. Or me myself. And I did. I bound myself to you."


She didn't say anything after that.


Philosophizing wouldn't do much good. "I'm taking Peter with me."


"No you're not," she said.


Peter said, "Please mom?"


"No."


Ebur said, "Later in the week, then."


"Whenever you give Ali what she and I need. I'll keep talking to her. Open marriage is a common thing, now, you know. Why don't you just embrace it like any other man?"


"Open marriage is an oxymoron. And besides, even if such a thing existed, what you want isn't that. Your idea's still closed, but it ain't marriage."


"It's a great arrangement! I've worked it all out: everyone who needs sex gets sex. Everyone who needs a friend gets a friend. Everyone who needs commitment gets commitment. It's the perfect love triangle like in the stories."


He said. "The unconditional love of marriage has but one condition: forsaking all others. Without that, it isn't love."


"She's ten years younger than me. She's fit. She's powerful as things go in Eureka."


He shook his head. "You can just turn a man into a pet."


"Oh but I can," she said.


He snorted, stallion-like. "Have a good day, sweetheart."


"Don't call me that."


"You got it babe."


"Don't call me that."


He stopped with the names. He had work to do -- a case, paid or no. He was already in the truck driving away watching her scream at him soundlessly beyond the windshield.


#

V.


On the way, he got a call from her. "Can we hire you out?"


He did need the money. "Have you just talked to G.G.?"


"You know you can always ask me for money. Is it me?" she asked.


"No, it's always me. And her. I'm already working on Brady. Send the first check."


"I'll hand deliver it tomorrow. Race ya?"


He said nothing.


"We just talked to Mark, he--"


"I thought I was racing you?" he asked.


"Last one there's a rotten egg!"


"I'll do Mark's alone."


"I meant to the finish line," she said.


"Oh," he said.


She was silent, then.


"Okay," he said.


"Great!"


He hung up on her.



#

VI.


The barrel that drooped on the pegboard in one of the stalls opened up to reveal row after row of old paints. He moved on to a stack of old parking meters, those traffic tamers.


"Be with you in a minute," Mark said.


The customer in front of him pulled out a wad of cash.


Ebur waved a hand. Who collected license plates anyways? Seemed a stupid thing: collecting various bits of proof of the ways the government had you register in their databases in order to keep you herded in. Did people collect yellow stars from the Holocaust? Jumpsuits from prison time? The store had so many things that you could drop on a man or use to get the drop on a man and break him in two. But no big cutting things, nothing like teeth and jaw extenders for a man.


Two or three more customers left and judging by the stillness of the antique barn, he figured Mark was free. He circled back around to the front and the old collector sat on his hightop swivel chair, tamping his pipe.


"You come to question me too?" Mark asked.


"Who do you think she'll question?"


"Everyone at the table," Mark said. "And you too. I asked you if you missed it and it looks as if you were right to say you did."


Ebur grimaced at the irreverence of it.


"Don't be so pious. A man who enjoys preaching can still enjoy giving a eulogy without incrimination." He puffed to light it. Puffed several times and a steady stream of Pipe Dream wafted into the air. "Course, preachers have also been incriminated for less."


"You want to question me?" Ebur said.


"Did she?"


"She did."


"Then no," Mark said.


"You ever use a scythe?"


"Zero point turner. Really nice."


Ebur ignored the jealousy within. "Where were you?"


"Sure," he said. "Looks bad after just telling you all that afternoon's are my time off."


"Opportunity's the biggest hurdle."


"Had I not been asleep half the day. Haven't been hungover like that since Frannie Holsapple's graduation party. Good God, I was stoned.


"You didn't get any junk off the street yesterday?"


"Well see that's the thing," he said, "we're both paid to clean up the countryside of brambles."


"Don't talk about the boy that way."


"Dog gets rabid, you put him down."


"Brady wasn't rabid."


"Boy with legs like that doesn't want to do the Olympic trials because he's mad at mom and dad? Come and tell me that's not a crime to all the Spring valley."


"What, World's Top Ten Tourism Hot Spots isn't good enough for you anymore?"


"You gotta sow your wild oats a little farther than the noise."


"I think you mean cast your nets."


"Wasn't talking about me anymore."


Ebur stewed. "You know, people would respect you more if--"


"Don't start in, old man." Mark said. "Only difference is you have no idea what it is to be the runt of the litter. Your momma spoiled you sour. You want respect..." he thumbed his holstered revolver.


Ebur was glad that separated them now: that he didn't holster anymore.


Mark's hard face softened to let in a bit of sadness. "I really wish I did. I really wish I hadn't been asleep. Where were you?"


"On top of the Crescent. I never went home."


Mark sat up straight and put his hand on his pistol.


"Mark, I did not kill that boy. And I would not kill that boy. And you know it."


The old mitten grip slackened. "But you must have seen something."


"I saw his boot and I saw..."


"What?"


"I heard him cry out."


"Dammit."


Ebur had a penny so he left a penny.


"Next Sunday?"


"I don't even know at this point." The bell rang as he left and he wondered if an angel still got its wings had it died in the jaws of the hydra or at the end of the reaper's scythe.


#

VII.


As he prepared for bed, the doorbell rang. He walked up and opened it to find Ali standing there. "Can I come in?"


"No," he said.


"Can you come out?"


"I can come sit on my porch with you."


"You have coffee?"


"I have chamomile tea. Coffee's a morning drink."


"Coffee's an always drink."


"Not all of us get pre-morning lunch breaks."


"Donut breaks," she said.


He got the tea with difficulty due to the gauze and came out and joined her on the porch. "I thought you were on that weird fitness diet."


She said, "When I break, I always break with donuts."


"How often do you break?"


"It's not called breakfast for nothing," she said and winked.


He sipped his tea and she hers.


And she said, "Can you ever see us together?"


"I'm a married man, Ali."


"Not really."


"No, really. I am a married man unless she leaves me."


"Why can't you do what she asks?"


"Because that would me cage my real self. I'm not made to live like that."


"Well I'd be faithful to you," she said and sipped her tea, her arm flexing as she did so.


"After helping me be unfaithful to her," he said.


She was quiet.


"You find anything?"


She said, "Talked to Mark, like I said. He doesn't know anything. Was really sweet about it."


"Huh."


"You?"


"Same."


"You're not going to let me in?" she asked.

"No."


"See you tomorrow."


"Okay," he said.


She walked back to her truck, bowie knife still strapped at her side, still carefully handling his mug and the scalding water within.


#

VIII.

He hated dawn. Not that there was anything wrong with it as a thing, but he was wrong for it. He didn't fit well in it. He was made to rise a bit later, but sometimes his back got him up then anyways and he'd feed the horses and then head out. He drove through town and up to Bean Me Up, as was his custom, dawn or no, and when he pulled around the window was closed. He went to knock on it and order his black Americano and saw instead a piece of paper that read:


PLEASE FORGIVE US


OUR BEST EMPLOYEE

HAS PASSED AWAY


WE WILL REOPEN

IN ONE WEEK

WHEN WE HAVE

REPLACED HIM


He didn't have the strength to swear. Of course losing Brady would mean losing his coffee routine. He sat dumbfounded with his truck idling forward at less than a mile an hour, riding the brake. He was almost in the street before he pressed hard enough to come to a complete stop and a truck passed by blaring its warning.


He went to McDonald's. The coffee was hot and nasty. He hated going to McDonald's. He pulled over and got out and took a piss in the place -- it was the least he could do for recompense. He drove on with his old-lady-burning coffee and gunned it around the corners per his custom.


Ahead, brake lights.


He slammed on the breaks and shifted down to first. The crap coffee exploded all over his dash and he found the strength to swear then. His truck was sideways across both lanes by the time it stopped, the cars circling to make a clearing around a typically quiet bend in the road. He backed his truck up so that it crested the peak and turned on his hazards and put on the parking brake.


Walking down to the circle of cars, he saw a bunch of morning commuters standing around something awful. It was Jerome, dead on the pavement, his spine crushed -- blood as a result, but not as cause of death. The chewing tobacco tin had been flattened a bit under the weight of something, as if stomped on or as if a fridge had been dropped on him. But there was no fridge. Had the Cyclops woken and stomped him flat? Had the sphinx or Jack's giant pounced on his bones? And what could he -- Ebur, the detective retired to the cattle yard -- do in the middle of such death? He looked around: the biker bar, the hanging cabins, a doctor's office. Nothing else, really, but the tall grass and trees off to the side. There was the fish fry joint, but Gary couldn't hurt a flee judging by the number of them he let cover that mangy hound of his.


Ebur pulled his phone and saw Mark's number in recent calls, but Mark might be the one crushing them. And Ali's number, who was on break. But if she was on break then... He scrolled and called Thomas.


"We called 911," one of the ladies said. "We didn't know what to do."


"You did the right thing," Ebur said, though maybe the inconvenient thing overall.


"Yellow."


"Thomas, get down to Gary's."


"What happened?"


"Jerome."


"Like Brady?"


"I need you here to see where I was when I arrived."


"Why?"


"Because I'm the one that found Brady."


"Oh..."


"Thomas?"


"Okay, I'm on my way."


Thomas lived not too far away he'd be there in a few minutes. Ebur walked around and comforted some of the women and advised they park a car on the other lane like he'd parked his in order to keep people from getting hurt. He got most of them up to the railing on the ledge by the biker bar, still so that they could see if they needed but out of harm's way of another truck.


That crashed into his truck by the time they were up there. It was Thomas. Ebur ran up to him to see if he was okay. The guy's forehead was bloody, but he was fine. "I see where you were when you arrived," he said.


"Some alibi," Ebur said and looked at his truck. The tailgate was curled over like a severely tucked lip, curled in such a way that a child might make a fort out of it, hiding away from the big bad wolf. It hurt him, but he was more pleased that Thomas was okay.


Thomas walked out and took the lay of the land and lost his breakfast when he looked at Jerome. They asked questions of the people together, piecing together who arrived first and questioning that person hard. From what they could tell, Jerome had been dead for almost half an hour before he was found, lying out in the middle of the street like that. Shame.


Ali showed up soon after that, helped first get the papers sorted out between the men and their cars. When she looked at the blood and the way the little man's spine was crushed, she glanced at Ebur and that look of dread returned.


And he looked back and did not turn away.


#

IX.


Later that morning, Thomas called him. "I've been thinking: what if it's not what you think?"


"Ali?" he asked. She had just bragged about donut breaks, though the crushing presented a different problem, one that suited--


"Or Mark. There are people that have access to stuff that can mangle a body both those ways. Kallie, for instance. Or Clemente."


"Like regular carpentry tools?" Ebur asked. "And what's that noise?"


"That's the dolly going down the stairs pretty hard. Making my deliveries."


"How you talking on the phone?"


"Wireless headset, old man."


"That like a Walkman?"


"For your phone."


"Okay. For your phone, okay."


"Yeah, Kallie has those big tools in her lab, heck she's got those headdresses made out of animal teeth and claws, and the fine cutting tools too. Clemente's got more than regular carpentry tools. He's got big-toothed saws, hammers with big claws on the back like big old bear-hunting pikes."


"And Jerome's crushed spine? His midsection was jelly."


"Trucks could do that, couldn't they?"


"It was pretty precise," Ebur said.


On the other end of the phone call came a great sound like the roar of the final trumpet, the cry of the chimera. It made Ebur freeze. Had Thomas thrown his phone and dropped his dolly? No, he said about the headset. Ebur heard gurgling.


"Thomas?"


The gurgling tried to form words.


"Thomas, I'll be right there. I'll be right there."




#

X.


It took walking through several alleys near the burrito joint before he found the dolly at the edge of one of the stone stair sets, its canned contents scattered everywhere -- it would have made a great crash. He looked up the stairs and saw his friend. And it was a matter of walking slow. He didn't want to miss any of the details. He looked behind him at the parking lot, at the bank, at the grasses and leaves and bare trees hiding the houses on the ridge. Any man could have escaped up that hill and hidden in a house. Could still be there.


He looked forward. The body of his friend waited. In the street at the alley's fountainhead, people walked by unaware that anything had happened. How had they missed that crash? Had it been that vacant only ten minutes prior?


He threw up his hands, a competent grown-ass man rendered impotent.


Realizing his friend might still be alive, he ran to Thomas. The man had a jagged slit across his throat and his body had been mangled as well, but the throat was the biggest thing, almost like a great knife or some dragon's razor wings had been dragged across him, the shock on his face. It called to him, the body of Thomas, called out to him: 'tis life we may live, 'tis death we may die. It called him to become what all men become and to face that. It wasn't that Ebur wanted life. It wasn't that Ebur wanted death. He wanted drums. The words of Edwards came to him then, one of those many resolutions that used to sit on his father's desk in the upstairs study back when his dad pastored that little parish out on the countryside.


Resolved: to think much on all occasions of my own dying and of the common circumstances which attend death.


Common circumstances. He laughed a vain and dark laugh. Common. And then some other quote from some other of his dad's old saints: that on the spectrum of possible deaths, he would get only one, so why worry about them all? Not life. Not death. He wanted drums. His heart began to beat again: thrill for the hunt. The drums, the drums they called to him as if he were on a safari, as if some of Kallie's ancestors had come along with some tribal dance and had summoned his inner Kong.


Ebur called Clemente. He switched the phone from his good hand after wincing from the wound.


"Que pas' amigo?"


"Cleme," Ebur said. "Where are you? Thomas is dead."


"Woah, man, woah. How you keep finding them?"


Ebur seethed. He didn't know. "Need you here."


"I'm not off until like dusk. On this house right now, working on the walkways for the city tonight."


"Fine."


"Call Alison, man. She's the one that fixes."


He swore. "Fine."


"What's wrong with you, man?"


"Three of my friends were brutally murdered just a couple of days after we all played poker together." It wasn't anger he felt when he said all of that. The anger had masked that other thing that was forming tears at the ends of his eyesight. And he was trying to stop that, trying and failing.


After a pause, Clemente said, "I didn't mean it like that. We're all..."


"It's fine. It's fine Cleme."


"Kay, man, be good. Call Ali." He hung up.


Ebur called her.


She didn't answer.


He called her again.


She didn't answer.


He called her a third time and prepared to leave a message.


She answered. "Couldn't wait to get ahold of me?" she said. There was sadness back behind the playfulness, something deep and unending.


"No. Thomas is dead."


"WHAT?!"


He hadn't expected genuine surprise. It was hard to fake that kind of shock. Perhaps it wasn't her?


Her voice started trembling. "Where is he? Where are you?"


"I'm here with him," he said. "With his... body."


She hung up on him. She never hung up on him.

#

XI.


At half past noon, he walked down the steps towards her car in the lot, he found his mind shifting, sifting through things, groping about as if civil society itself had unleashed him and left him to roam the wondering wild, a detective without papers, a detective without tools, a detective without a bureau or a force, without friends -- or with friends who kept dying, a detective with nothing but his own raw manhood to find answers.


It was a comforting thought.


It was a disturbing thought.


He walked her way and she sat there finishing her early-morning donut. Finishing. She was back on duty. Not that she couldn't kill someone on duty, but the likelihood, especially with that car camera... he doubted she could have gotten to Thomas. But Jerome seemed a real possibility. Something wasn't fitting into place. Perhaps it was completely unrelated -- some drifter, someone with time on their hands. And yet... the killings seemed so connected to Sunday's poker table. Could nature itself kill so discriminately? Could random deaths like these align? Surely they needed some will behind them.


She hit the unlock button. He climbed in.


"You want to tell me what happened?" she was stuffing her face. Comfort eating.


"I was talking to him about Jerome and I heard him cry out."


"Why were you talking to him about Jerome?"


"Because we're racing and sharing my findings would give you an advantage."


She smiled weakly. "I think we're past that."


He said nothing. This life untamed would suffer no explanation: he remained competitive because he remained skeptical and on the job. Until the solution arose, there was no rest from the problem.


"Is he up there?" she asked.


"Yeah," he said.


"I'll call it in, but you gotta give me something."


"Wrong place, wrong time."


"Thing about coincidence is sometimes it's intentional."


"You think someone's screwing with me?"


"I'm saying providence is kind." She gave him a look as if waiting for a confession, kid caught completely inside the candy jar.


"I don't see the kindness in any of this."


"Maybe you're just getting there a second too late." The dread, there on her face.


"That's cheery."


"Sorry," she said. "Cherry donut?"


He shrugged and grabbed the chocolate banana pudding one instead.


"I was saving that," she said and slugged his arm.


It hurt, but not much. "For me," he said and smiled. He looked up the hill and his expression darkened.


"I got an idea this morning, looking at the truck bed how it was all bent over like a little hideaway. What if we skipped town? Peter can come."


"He's legally bound to his mom."


"Last I checked, there's nothing out on that front in the courts."


"I wouldn't do that to her."


"Let's say you got brave and took an adventure with me and took Peter along. And let's say she pressed charges. We could fight her easy in Eureka."


He thought about it. The adventure part sounded nice. Of course, he didn't really want to leave G.G. And what would that do to Peter in years to come? He looked at her. She was gorgeous. She wore a regular police uniform as if it were a roleplaying costume. He knew it was the rigorous workout regimen she forced herself to abide by -- minus the donuts of course. Wouldn't want to disrespect the badge. He said, "I just can't, Ali. It's not right."

"What's wrong with me?" she asked.


"I'm not even asking for her arrangement anymore. I'm just wanting to take you away from this place forever. We don't have to do it her way. We could always do it my way."


"And that's what she's asking."


"What?"


"For a way other than ours. I, as a man, don't fit into the picture frame either of you have hammered together. What you call adventure, I call docile and pedestrian and boring and damn inconvenient. You really just want me to do your bidding like her. You want my manhood and she wants my mind, but neither of you want me."


"That's not fair."


"Not it's not," he said and he grunted as he got out of the car. Before he shut the door he said, "When was the last time you used that knife of yours?"


She cocked her head at him. "Last fall when I field-dressed that deer, why?" She squinted. "You don't think I..."


"I don't know what I think. He's up the hill. I need to take a walk."


#

XII.


Ebur let her go to him and took off the other way along the parking lot. He noted how she watched him go and then moved on. He called Clemente.


Clemente did not answer.


Instead of calling back as he had, he took off walking through the city's streets. It felt like New Orleans or some other French city had been dropped out of a toy box onto the hill country of the Ozarks and wherever the pieces landed, the people settled and had to build bridges and walkways and stair sets in order to reach one another. As if it were a struggle for civilization to germinate in that rocky soil. As if a prophecy promising that when Christ returns on the clouds, the world really will come to be a city in a garden: the city bewildered but not destroyed, the wild humanized but not colonized. He walked those walkways, eyeing a mural here and a closed coffee shop there -- things in Eureka seldom had the stamina to stay opened all day long. The city's life roamed in shifts: first the coffee joints (he winced thinking of that), then the lunch and dinner joints, then the drinking joints, then the hotels and their breakfast joints and so on. The sun set. It was unremarkable since its marks hid behind the hills.


The cold had set in again and he could tell it would not be letting up. It began to snow and he smiled because that would give him something to work with, something other than these naked trees and tall grasses and crunchy leaves.


Clemente called back. "Yo ese."


"Cleme, you working the walkways tonight?"


"Later tonight, yes. I like to do it when people aren't out shopping as much."


"It's winter."


"It's habit."


"Alright, well--" there, on the planks of the walkway, not far, distance-wise from where he'd found Thomas, another. Another. Another. Would they ever quit?


"Ebur?"


He walked up and found her -- Ingrid -- laying face-up like he'd found Brady. Horror on her face, midsection mangled like the rest. But the face. The face was purple as if the life had been suffocated out of her as if the giant squid or a dementor had sucked out her soul. And how could a mere man stop such a thing? Was he still a man anymore after the way G.G. and Ali had treated him? He looked closer.


"Ebur are you okay?"


"Give me just a minute, Clemente." By her cheeks, piercings like miniature spears had gone through and held some sort of bag or suffocation device to her face. Almost like tent pegs and a tarp. Construction tools. "Clemente, where were you this afternoon?" Clemente had strong arms. He could suffocate a man. Or a woman. The mangle -- it could be done with any tool. But this one. It's almost like pieces of her were missing. Had the others looked like that? Jerome had the least blood, but even in his crushed spine, his body had born those piercings. "Clemente?"


"Don't tell me."


"Clemente where were you?"


"Don't tell me, man, please."


"You need to tell me where you were."


"I was at the Heck mansion."


"Okay. Doing what?"


"Stonework with the decorative concrete guys."


"So concrete."


"So concrete. Stamps. Stains. Did you...?"


"Ingrid."


"Oh God, no, abuela. Oh Jesus and Mary."


"Can you get to the walkways?" He always worked the walkways. He could have been here. He was on his way here. He might already be here.


"Which one? I'm up near the top of the hill right now."


"Down by Mudstreet."


He was there quickly. He stared and stared at Ingrid's body. Had he been the killer, he'd want to return to the scene anyways. And had he been the killer, he couldn't do anything worse to her, could he? Ebur called Ali.


"Ingrid."


"On my way."


"I didn't tell you where," he said.


She said, "Well wherever it is I'm on my way."


"Walkway by Mudstreet. I'm leaving Clemente here."


"Good," she said. "I want to talk to him. Stay there."


"I got a lead," he said. "I'm taking it."


#

XIII.


G.G. called as he pulled out his truck with the curled lip. "I need you to watch Peter tonight. I have to run some errands."


"I can't," he said.


"What? You never tell me no. Not to taking Peter to work."


That was true. He hardly saw the boy.


"Don't you want to see your son?"


"It's not safe," he said.


"Oh don't tell me she roped you back into detective work."


"It's not like that."


"Oh that's just great. You're going in the wrong direction, Woodham."


He didn't want the boy along for safety reasons, but it was one of the best things for a son to experience work with his father. That's the way apprenticeships and walkabouts used to go. Kids in history died for less in route to manhood. And the ones that lived carried on strong and vibrant lives. It would be the best way for him to teach the boy. A savage and fierce training, but a training nonetheless. "I'll take him."


"He's staying here."


"No. He's not."


She was silent.


He was silent.


"Okay," she said. "Please be careful with him."


And for the first time ever, that was that.


#

XIV.


"Where we going, papa?"


"Pete, we're going to work," Ebur said, shifting down to keep the truck from fishtailing off the mountainside in the black ice.


"Did a horse get loose?"


"No. Not that work."


"Other work?"


"Yes."


"The one momma doesn't like?"


"Yes."


"Oh boy. This will be just delightful."


He looked over at his son, eyebrow cocked.


"Delightful means something we like. Full of the like."


"Ah," he said. "Did you learn that from your mom?"


"Aunt Ali."


He bit his lip and focused on the road.


"Are people dead?"


"Do you know what that is?"


"Somebody doesn't have them in it anymore."


That was one way of putting it. "Does that scare you?"


Peter said. "Happens to everybody like getting born or growing up."


He didn't object that some kids didn't get to grow up because they died, kids like Peter put in situations like Ebur's, but the kid's point struck true anyways. "Yes. Yes it does. But we don't want it to happen to you too soon so we need to keep you back, okay? You stay behind me."


"Okay papa."


"And you run if I tell you to run. You do what I say."


"You got it papa, just like with the horses."


"Just like with the horses, that's right."


"Cause otherwise the horses might buck me off."


He nodded.


"Who we after?"


"Ms. Kallie."


"The Cat Lady?"


"The Cat Lady, yes."

"She did something bad?"


"I think so, Pete. I think so."


"How so?"


"She's got a day that can fit a lot of things into it and the problem I'm trying to solve needs someone that can be there at just about any time of the day. And she has big things that crush people and animal claws. And she carries around a scalpel that--"


"What's a scalpel?"


"The sort of knife the doctors used when they cut out your tonsils."


"Okay. Does she carry ice cream too?"


"No. She uses it for bad things. Cutting things that don't need cutting. That's why you need to do what I say, in case she's dangerous."


"Ms. Kallie would never hurt me."


"Maybe not," he said. "But just in case."


"Just in case."


"Good boy."

Ali called.


He threw the phone to his son. "Answer that, would you Pete?"



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